Hardship, pride, success highlighted in early Alberta black settler film

The lives of Alberta's first black settlers, some of whom are still alive, are being showcased in Calgary this week.

'It's time that our history be celebrated as part of Canada's history,' descendant says

Jay Leffler, pictured above at age five, poses with his mother on the family homestead in Wildwood, circa 1931. He became Alberta's first black electrician and is featured in a documentary produced by daughter Deborah Dobbins. (Leffler family)

The lives of Alberta's first black settlers, some of whom are still alive, are being showcased in Calgary this week.

A documentary, We are the Roots: Black Settlers and Their Experiences of Discrimination on the Canadian Prairies, shines a spotlight on a group of people who helped build the province yet have not had their stories widely the told. 

The film, which won a Governor General's History Award, was the brainchild of Deborah Dobbins, a descendant of those settlers. 

Between 1,000 and 1,500 people moved north from the United States at the invitation of government, and left behind oppressive Jim Crow laws that forbade them from owning land.

Dobbins's own family settled west of Edmonton in Wildwood, and her aunt went on to become the first black woman to drive an Edmonton Transit bus.

The film tracks those settlers' stories and how they overcame discrimination to become successful. You can see it Thursday in Calgary at Mount Royal University or watch it on the production company's website, baileyandsoda.com.

Dobbins joined Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray to discuss the documentary.

Q: Why did your family and other African-Americans come to the Prairies?

A: We were invited by the government. The government put out lots of posters and we answered that call. We were able to own land finally and be part of a country that values our citizenship and our working together with them to build a great country.

Q: And when you arrived at the border, did you surprise anyone?

A: Oh yes, we did. They didn't expect any black people to come across and so they tried to dissuade us and say, "Oh, it's too cold here. This place is not for you."

But we had everything we were supposed to have and they had to let us cross the border and become Canadians.

Q: How was your family's experience different from say other European settlers who came here?

A: The people that live in the small communities, they were together regardless who they were, where they came from because everyone was in the same boat. When people moved to the city, that's when we really felt the pains of discrimination.

Q: Now I'm told your documentary is an oral history. It features a lot of interviews with the descendants of these early settlers. What kind of stories did you hear during this?

A: Many stories of hardship but a pride and of just being happy that they were able to finally own land and raise a family, and there were many incidents.

The focus of the documentary and our research was about discrimination, marginalization and prejudice. Those accounts are highlighted somewhat in the documentary.

So people couldn't work on any white collar jobs, even blue collar or even less than that, porters, maids, even though they had many, many skills. They weren't able to use a lot of their skills because of the colour of their skin.

Q: We talk about this as history, and it is history. One of the joys, I guess, of doing a documentary in Western Canada is that a lot of that history is still alive. Some of those people are still alive. You actually spoke to 99-year-olds?

A: Yes, and 101-year-olds. My Aunt Gladys Leffler, she is in the documentary. She since passed at 102 but her words of wisdom are there now forever because we have her voice.

Q: What words of wisdom did you hear? What did you learn along the way?

A: In spite of all the negativity that you need to stay positive and try to find the good in other people, and not bring other people down but raise them up.

And be proud of your roots regardless of where we came from, and remember where we came from because many of us … all of us are very high achievers. We have taken the education and ran with it, and we are very successful people.

But we have to remember who brought us this far and that foundation that was laid for us so we can be successful today.

Q: Why does this matter so much to you? Why do you care so much about collecting and sharing these memories?

A: Our people helped develop Alberta, Saskatchewan, the Prairies. Our history is a part of Canada's history, and right now it is not taught in schools, except for a few teachers that will rise up during Black History Month and other months.

But it's time that our history be celebrated as part of Canada's history.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full interview:

In the early 20th century, waves of European immigrants bought prairie farm land. A documentary, airing in Calgary, shines a spotlight on a lesser-known group of settlers: African-Americans. 6:26

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.